As subtle as a speeding bullet.
I’m a little under 24 hours removed from viewing Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman mythos, and I have to say that whatever its faults — and there are several, but I get ahead of myself — it’s provoked enough complicated reactions within me to merit a long-form response, which is not something I can say for any other film I’ve seen this year (and to be clear, the number of films I’ve seen this year remains in the single digits).
I’ll preface everything by saying I’m not a Superman “fan” in the sense that I seek out and enjoy the character’s adventures, but I will note that I have appreciation for the iconography and ideals that he represents, and I’m fairly well-versed in most of his canon and supporting characters (fan or not, I’m a still a comics geek, and ignorance of Superman isn’t an option). I was never particularly interested in The Big Blue Schoolboy growing up, but that interest has gradually deepened over time after considering a handful of deconstructed facsimiles of Superman; particularly Squadron Supreme‘s Hyperion, Irredeemable’s Plutonian, and Astro City‘s Samaritan.
That’s all to say that I’m coming at this film with a certain academic eye that I haven’t been able to give to films based on characters like Batman or Spider-Man, who I have a deep affinity for and in which the flaws in their films tend to be forgiven more easily, because Oh Wow Oh Cool It’s Batman.
In other words, you have to Really Screw Up to make me hate a Batman film, Joel Schumacher.
Here’s my four-word review of Man of Steel: I Didn’t Hate It. If you want more words than that, many more, along with spoilers galore, follow below.
Things I Appreciated
- Lois Lane, Nobody’s Fool. I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a Superman story that showed Lois to have the determination and smarts to follow the rumors of a superhero all the way back to the source in Smallville. I really admired that the filmmakers immediately tossed aside the tired Superman/Clark/Lois “triangle” and the need to suspend so much disbelief that you’d think a Pulitzer-Prizewinning journalist can’t tell the difference between two men she cares about just because one wears glasses.
- The Rise and Fall of the Kryptonian Empire. Krypton in previous films came across as little more than a sterile advanced species, a Silver City whose angels were doomed by mere circumstance. Through a number of neat brushstrokes, Man of Steel adds depth and murk to the legend of the society, making their doom a product of several bad decisions — (1) abandoning interstellar exploration, (2) engineering all of their citizens in a manner that discouraged free will and innovation, and (3) harvesting their own planet’s core without considering the eventual ramifications of that act. When the end comes it is not only failure to heed Jor-El’s warnings but failure to live in any moment beyond the Glorious Now.
- Jor-El and Zod, Brotherly Enemies. The above interpretation of Krypton also allowed for new shadings in the relationship between Krypton’s top warrior and its top scientist, both of whom sought the same goal but through dramatically different means and philosophical understandings of the fate of Krypton. Having previously only seen Zod as a one-note, power-mad would-be dictator and Jor-El as a benevolent martyr, the versions offered in this film came across to me as refreshing.
- The Fashion Designer of Solitude. I went back and forth on the film’s idea that Superman’s entire costume was Kryptonian in nature, as opposed to the past convention that the costume was designed and crafted by the Kents, with only the symbol on the chest being alien in nature. But this premise has always required me to shrug in the first place, the aw-shucks notion of Martha Kent sewing her son’s superhero duds. And the cape, being as grandiose as ever, does seem more like the fashion of a decadent, arrogant society than it does from the practical mind of Mrs. Kent.
- Growing Pains. The film makes significant efforts to establish that although Kal-El and other Kryptonians are humanoid in nature that they are not human, and that adapting to Earth’s conditions is not something easily done (and vice versa for Lois Lane, when brought aboard the alien ship). The sequences depicting a young Clark overwhelmed by his extra-natural senses of vision, hearing, and otherwise were very well-rendered, and I appreciated that they came back in a significant way when he used his experiences to briefly gain the upper hand on Zod.
Things I Didn’t Care For
- Zack Snyder’s Heavy Hammer of Heavyhanded Hammerhanding. I’m willing to cut a director a little slack on the subtlety for a Superman story — after all, we’re talking about an alien being who can fly and a half-dozen other things that make him well-nigh invulnerable. But there is no dramatic beat that Zack Snyder can’t turn into a melodramatic beat, no symbolism that he cannot flay to its pulsing, ugly, exposed nerve. The crucifixion pose that Superman adopts as he plummets back to Earth, right after Jor-El says “You can save them all,” ought to earn Henry Cavill an Oscar nomination just because I’m impressed he managed to ever do it without rolling his eyes or busting up in laughter. And this is only the worst example in a film brimming over with them.
- Jonathan Kent, Conflicted Coward. Kevin Costner was a fine choice to play a decent Midwestern man trying to do right by his family. Besides baseball players, that’s what Costner tends to be best at. But I never bought into this notion that Jonathan might be willing to sacrifice a school bus full of children, and then himself, in order to preserve humanity’s comforting lie that there was no life beyond Earth’s atmosphere, much less life that was superior in many ways. The screenplay attempts to make Kent’s death a noble sacrifice for his son and instead makes him come across as callous and ignorant — forcing Clark to let him die, to make him watch and do nothing — was bound to hurt Clark worse than the revelation of Clark’s powers ever could.
- The S is for Sponsorship. Again, Snyder is not a subtle director, and I have to think that this is why the product placement seemed louder than it might in other films that also had products to place.
- Lois Lane, Superman’s Girlfriend. The kiss is awful. Just awful. Out of place amid the wreckage that is still mid-occurrence, forced in there seemingly because some studio mucky-muck along the way asked why Lois and Superman haven’t kissed each other yet. The only things more awful than that kiss are the two lines of dialogue that follow it:
Lois: They say it’s all downhill after the first kiss.
Superman: I think that only counts for humans.
- Newspapers Are A Dying Industry. Perry White’s newsroom either deserved better than it got in this film or it needed to barely be seen at all. Laurence Fishburne does a fine job with what he’s given, but the only time he truly distinguishes himself from all other archetypes of the tough-as-nails chief editor is for the two seconds that he’s holding Jenny’s hand before they expect to be crushed to death by the gravity increase from the World Engine. Otherwise, it feels like a pretty generic idea of a modern newspaper.
Things A Lot of Other People Disliked That I Didn’t Feel Similarly About
- Death and Destruction. I’d need to rewatch the final fight sequence again but I felt while watching it that the massive-scale destruction being visited upon Metropolis was primarily the result of Zod’s actions and combat tactics moreso than Superman’s. Additionally, I’m unsure why it was assumed that every building that toppled during this final confrontation had people in it. The Daily Planet evacuated in a big damn hurry once the World Engine began crushing everything a block at a time, and that’s not a small building. I do agree with comments I read elsewhere claiming that it would have been nice to show Superman at least trying to save innocent people who weren’t Lois Lane. It would certainly have added dimension to the battle if it was not only about two powerful people punching each other but also about one of them trying to keep the battle contained between only the two of them. But that said, the destruction never seemed beyond the scale of destruction I’ve seen in other films about alien or monster invasion, in which the good guys often — by nature of ground warfare in a large city — do significant damage to buildings and possibly the people in them. (Sidenote: I’ve often wondered how many people died in car accidents caused by the rampaging bus in Speed and if it was a greater number than the people on the bus Keanu Reeves managed to save.)
- Last Sons of Krypton. I do understand the fundamental concern that one of Superman’s core tenets is that he does not kill. (This is often trotted out as one of Batman’s as well, although it should be tempered by knowledge of the first Bob Kane/Bill Finger stories in which he killed practically every criminal he encountered.) But I do think that Man of Steel earned this broken rule, and in fact I think it did better in earning it than Batman Begins did with the death of Ra’s al-Ghul (“I don’t have to save you, either.”). There are real consequences to Kal-El becoming the Last Son of Krypton, and they come as the result of a choice: side with the humans Zod was about to incinerate or side with his birthright. The anguish depicted in Kal as Zod dies is palpable. The moment is by no means a victory. And I get no sense that a line has been crossed that Superman will now feel comfortable crossing again at will.
It would be easy for me to say that everything I liked was the influence of Christopher Nolan and everything I hated was because of Zack Snyder, but that would be both unfair and unsubstantiated. There’s a lot of mess in the film and I don’t have high hopes that adding Batman and Wonder Woman to the sequel under Snyder’s direction is going to help make that any better. I do think the film is significantly better than Bryan Singer’s ill-conceived Superman Returns as well as half of the Christopher Reeve vehicles, most episodes of Lois & Clark and the handful of episodes I saw of Smallville. It remains well beneath the writing and characterization of the animated Superman, voiced by Tim Daly, but that can be said in general for DC’s live-action productions when compared to its animation wing,
Of course, being one of the best of a small pool doesn’t necessarily make Man of Steel a great film. But I do think there’s a lot of good in this film, and having had expectations lowered throughout the year I can’t even say I was disappointed.
Current Music: Death Cab for Cutie, “Summer Skin”